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How To Increase Your Pain Tolerance

Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Hemingway said, "To hell with them. Nothing hurts if you don't let it."

David Goggins said, "Can't hurt me."

Chesty Puller said, "Pain is weakness leaving the body."

Criss Angel said, "Pain is a beautiful thing. When you feel pain, you know you're alive."

Physical and emotional pain are as necessary as they are undesirable. Anne Lemke was recently on the Rich Roll Podcast, speaking about how addiction is more prevalent now than ever because our vices are so easy to access. Alcohol is everywhere. Marijuana is widely legal. And we can order anything online without any effort at all. Not only that, but we're subliminally encouraged to avoid pain. We can avoid pain for a long time, if we want to. But the avoidance of pain is sure to manifest in even more pain.

As an endurance athlete, I'm fairly well acquainted with pain in its many iterations. And, the more I do hard things the better I am at managing pain. At the starting line of my last race, I mentally grappled with the physical pain I knew I had to face. Walking up to the door of pain is one thing. Entering is quite another. And coming back for more is either courageous or foolish.

I wanted to know who has a higher pain tolerance: men or women. So far, the jury is still out on that one because pain is a difficult thing to measure and there is no set criteria for doing so. A more useful thing to write about then, is how to increase one's tolerance to pain.

Lance Armstrong said, "Pain is temporary but pride is forever." I'm not sure how useful that quote is. Nor am I sure that it's altogether true. But, your pain tolerance varies depending on complex interactions between your nerves and your brain. Many things can increase pain tolerance, including:

  • Genetics: Research suggests that your genes can affect how you perceive pain. Your genetics may also influence how you respond to some pain medications.

  • Age: Elderly individuals consistently have a higher pain threshold but nobody knows exactly why. I think it's probably due to experience.

  • Sex: For unknown reasons, females report longer-lasting and more severe pain levels than males do, on average.

  • Chronic illness: Over time, a chronic illness, such as migraines or fibromyalgia, can change your pain tolerance, either upward or downward.

  • Mental illness: Pain is more often reported in people with depression or a panic disorder. Researchers believe the association is due to similar biological mechanisms between depression and pain.

  • Stress: Being under a lot of stress can make pain feel more severe because cortisol increases inflammation, which only exacerbates physical pain.

  • Social isolation: Social isolation may add to the experience of pain and decrease your pain tolerance. Dr. Steve Cole from UCLA found that social isolation sets off antiviral responses in the body linked to survival tactics from thousands of years ago, proving that our bodies perceive loneliness as a life or death situation.

  • Past experience: Your previous experiences of pain can influence your pain tolerance. People regularly exposed to extreme temperatures may have a higher pain tolerance than others. However, people who’ve had a bad experience at the dentist can have a strong pain response to even minor procedures at future visits.

  • Expectations: Your upbringing and learned coping strategies can affect how you think you should feel or react to a painful experience.

Some of us are born with higher pain tolerances, and having a lower tolerance doesn't mean you're "weak" but there are some things you can do to increase your pain tolerance.

1. Yoga A 2014 study found that people who regularly practice yoga could tolerate more pain than those who didn’t. Yogis also have more gray matter in parts of the brain related to pain processing, pain regulation, and attention. 2. Aerobic exercise Physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can also raise pain tolerance and decrease pain perception. One study found that a moderate to vigorous cycling program significantly increased pain tolerance. 3. Vocalization Saying “ow," or even letting an expletive out, when you’re in pain can have very real effects on how you experience pain. A 2015 study had participants do a cold pressor test. Some were asked to say “ow” as they submerged their hand, while others were instructed to do nothing. Those who vocalized their pain seemed to have a higher pain tolerance.

4. Breathwork

Deep breathing promotes healthy blood flow, releases toxins from the body, and aids in getting restorative sleep. Studies suggest that the way of breathing decisively influences autonomic and pain processing, thereby modulating pain perception. Breathwork is a common tool in Biofeedback therapy, which aims to help you increase your awareness of how your body responds to stressors and other stimuli.

Pain is a complex experience. While you can't always control the source of your pain, there are ways you can alter your perception of pain. The way you think about pain and discomfort can actually change your experience, to a certain degree. Research in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that exercising for just six weeks significantly boosts one's ability to tolerate pain. Regular exercisers understand that they have to push their bodies past their comfort zones in order to improve, and as they do, their comfort zones grow bigger.

The kind of pain tolerance you can increase is obviously different from acute pain, so don't be a dimwit and hurt yourself.

P.S. Try this free online yoga, read about how to test your pain tolerance here, or watch this Tedx video about pain and the brain.


Sarah Rose

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